As a nation we are struggling to manage workplace stress – a problem we should reflect on after April’s ‘Stress Awareness Month’, says Michael Kerrigan.
A staggering one in five people surveyed said they felt unable to manage stress and pressure in the workplace, according to Mental Health UK, who describe stress as ‘the feeling of being overwhelmed and finding it hard to cope emotionally or mentally’.
Indeed, statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (‘HSE’) reveal that work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 17 million working days lost in the UK in 2021/22, and that work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 50 percent of all work-related ill health.
Stress can cause us to be irritable, angry or tearful; to feel anxious, hopeless or scared; to struggle to make decisions, have racing thoughts or feel overwhelmed. Although it is not an illness in itself, it can trigger anxiety, depression and strokes – amongst other health issues – which can amount to a disability under law.
How to manage and reduce the risk of workplace stress
Employers may be familiar with the business case for looking after employee wellbeing. Warwick University research from 2009 claims that happy employees are around 12 percent more productive. It is well known that stress can cause absenteeism, high staff turnover, increased errors in work and reduced client satisfaction. In extreme cases, prolonged job stress can result in burnout and has even been linked to chronic fatigue.
Stressful feelings typically happen when we feel we do not have the resources to manage the challenges we face, although, the level of stress one individual is comfortable with may be higher or lower than for another person.
To prevent unmanageable stress arising in the first place, employers should try to set achievable, clear and consistent goals for their staff. Employers would be wise to carry out a stress risk assessment in accordance with HSE management standards and guidance. Regular training, including practical steps tailored to the role about how to handle stressful situations, can increase staff confidence and effectiveness. For staff who are likely to have to deal with conflict in their day-to-day jobs – such as customer, patient or client-facing roles – providing coaching on coping strategies and conflict resolution can provide staff with a toolbox to prevent them from getting overwhelmed.
Communicating and creating an open culture where employees have ways to raise and discuss stress will encourage staff to speak out when they are under pressure, before it turns into a problem. By maximising staff autonomy and encouraging their participation in decision-making, staff themselves may be able to provide solutions to the problems causing their stress.
Managers should be able to spot the signs of a stressed worker. They should be capable of identifying the right moment to intervene and should take early action where possible. If an employee goes off sick with stress, managers should have access to a sickness policy which can guide them through such a situation. This will reduce legal risk and facilitate dealing with absences consistently and effectively. Businesses may also wish to consider whether a stand-alone stress or wellbeing policy is suitable for their organisation.
How to manage an employee suffering from workplace stress
Employers should take seriously the issue of an employee suffering from workplace stress. As health issues caused by work-related stress could amount to a disability, employers would be wise to get such an employee assessed by Occupational Health. Employers are under a legal duty not to discriminate against employees with a disability (which is any long-term physical or mental health condition which has a substantial adverse effect on day-to-day activities), and to make reasonable adjustments to enable disabled employees to work more easily. For working employees who are suffering from stress, even if a disability hasn’t been identified, reasonable adjustments might include the following:
- Changing the employee’s start times and finish times;
- Reducing their workload;
- Reduce their hours;
- Changing the type of work the employee is responsible for (although this option can cause additional stress, so it is important to communicate with employee about whether they think this will work, and to check in with them regularly after they have started the new type of work);
- Moving the employee to another team;
- Considering making adjustments to disciplinary, or performance, or absence procedures; and
- Paying for counselling for the employee (this kind of adjustment might be considered reasonable if their ill health was caused by their work, or if you have caused or prolonged any sick leave).
If an employee has been off on long-term sickness leave due to their stress, managers and employees should work together to identify any adjustments which might make communication about their ill health and coming back to work easier. Staying in frequent contact with an employee who is off sick is important. Employers may wish to consider allowing the employee more time to respond to their communications, and even allowing one of their family members to respond on their behalf, if they do not feel up to it. Another option could be to look at holding meetings at the employee’s home or a neutral location outside the workplace. When the employee comes back to their job, it would be prudent to conduct a return-to-work interview, or series of interviews, and provide them with a phased return to work.
Employers could face a number of types of claim if they are not careful how they treat employees suffering from stress. This includes disability discrimination, harassment and unfair dismissal. This adds to the myriad reasons for supporting employees to try to avoid stress and burnout, taking great care in managing long-term sickness absence, and providing staff with reasonable adjustments where appropriate. If they find themselves faced with a claim, employers would do well to take professional advice early – including legal, and in some cases, medical advice – and should remember to notify their insurers.
Michael Kerrigan is a Partner in the employment team at Debenhams Ottaway.
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.